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Hard Truths About World Power Plant Carbon Emissions

Would you like to know how US power plants stack up to the rest of the world’s in terms of carbon emissions? I doubt that many Americans will enjoy the answer.

America's Dirtiest Power Plants (EnvironmentAmerica)A report released this morning by Environment America, the national federation of statewide advocacy groups working on clean air, clean water, and open spaces, compares carbon emissions from US power plants to world power plant carbon emissions (all sources, all countries). The report, “America’s Dirtiest Power Plants: Polluters on a Global Scale” (link pending) gives industry, elected officials, Peoples Climate March organizers, and United Nations representatives a pretty good idea why regulating CO2 pollution from power plants is critical to engage the climate crisis.

It reprises a similar study we reported on last fall. Note that neither report deals with the impacts of methane per se from fuel development and production.

US power plants are a major source of climate pollution, the report says, over 6% of the world total.

“In 2012, U.S. power plants produced more carbon pollution than the entire economies of Russia, India, Japan or any other nation besides China. The 50 dirtiest US power plants alone—representing less than 1% of those in America—produced as much pollution in 2012 as the nation of South Korea (currently the world’s seventh leading emitter of greenhouse gases).”

In fact, American power plant emissions on the whole are globally significant—“among the most significant sources of global warming pollution in the world.” In terms of all US CO2 emissions, our electric generating facilities produce close to half (40%).

US power plants and non-US equivalents (

The main culprit EA fingers, of course, is coal. Coal-fired plants produce about three-quarters of the total (74%), but they do not even generate half of the nation’s electricity  (37%). (However, EA cautions that only a small handful of US coal plants produce this “massive and disproportionate” share of the world’s global warming pollution.)

The report’s second overall point is that to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, cutting US power plant pollution is essential. The experts throw their weight behind the belief that the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, proposed in June, will cut carbon pollution on the necessary global scale. Recapping the federal goal: cut pollution from US power plants 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.

Take-homes from this study:

  • “The U.S. EPA should strengthen, finalize, and implement the Clean Power Plan” by 2015 for 2016 implementation, using both renewable energy and energy efficiency measures to achieve a 35-40% cut below 2005 emissions by 2020. This would amount to what the entire nation of Canada (the world’s eighth-largest CO2 emitter) produced in 2012.
  • “States should implement the Clean Power Plan in ways that maximize the potential for clean, renewable energy and energy efficiency, rather than increasing reliance on natural gas or nuclear power.” The report then presents five means of doing so.
US electric power plant carbon shares by fuel type (environmentamerica).

US electric power plant carbon shares by sector and fuel type (environmentamerica)

There are also specific policy recommendations for Congress and the President. As well as the points mentioned above, the report presents tables that cover power plant carbon dioxide emissions as a share of total state-level emissions; the nation’s 100 most-polluting power plants in terms of CO2 emissions equivalent in passenger vehicles and primary fuel category; and the share of each state’s electricity-sector CO2 pollution contributed by the top 5 most-polluting power plants.

EA’s conclusion:

“When finalized, the Clean Power Plan [will] be the largest step the United States has ever taken to cut global warming pollution.”

Let’s hope so.


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Written By

covers environmental, health, renewable and conventional energy, and climate change news. She's currently on the climate beat for Important Media, having attended last year's COP20 in Lima Peru. Sandy has also worked for groundbreaking environmental consultants and a Fortune 100 health care firm. She writes for several weblogs and attributes her modest success to an "indelible habit of poking around to satisfy my own curiosity."


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